Giving and gaining – how manufacturers use CSR

Posted on 8 Sep 2009 by The Manufacturer

Mark Young explores the community initiative aspect of corporate social responsibility and finds that it pays to give

Given manufacturers’ aptitude for creating obscene amounts of ozone shattering, ice cap melting carbon emissions, it is often thought that companies should focus largely on environmental protection initiatives when fulfilling their corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations.

However, what’s best for Mother Earth is only one, albeit crucial, component of CSR. Indeed, PepsiCo’s UK vice president of operations, Walter Todd, recently espoused that “no business can meet its shareholder obligations and do the right thing for the environment.” Undeniably, such a statement flies in the face of the continual proclamations to the contrary from government advisers, lean consultants, energy companies, and all those who want businesses to get on board with green without convincing them to concede on the bottom line.

Todd’s candour was high risk, but he wanted to bring green tax breaks to the agenda, and said it nonetheless. Indeed, replacing machinery and making major changes to production processes is likely to create a bill that would take decades worth of the energy the equipment saves to repay. As a result, it is imperative that community programmes must not be considered as merely another tick box on the CSR checklist – they should stand on their own merits. What’s more, that community work which creates long term value, financial and otherwise, does not begin and end with a single stand-alone initiative.

Regarding best practice in such projects, “companies that are leading the way take a strategic approach to community investment,” says Catherine Sermon, national community impact director at Business in the Community (BITC). “They talk to experts inside and outside the business to inform genuine and useful action. They want to take action on the issues that are most relevant to their business, their employees, and their communities. These companies also work collaboratively and leverage the support of their suppliers, partners, and customers to do likewise.”

BITC is a membership driven charity that provides advice and inspiration for companies to improve their impact on the wider society. One service it offers its members is a badge-of-honour qualification scheme called CommunityMark, a six month appraisal through which BITC advisors work with companies to align the firm’s community strategy with set regulations. This is assessed and invigilated by an independent panel who decide whether or not the firm is fit to receive the CommunityMark.

Nonetheless, ‘what’s in it for me?’ is a question decision makers have rightly been programmed to ask during the last fifteen years by another facet of CSR, namely ensuring that the shareholders back pockets continue to swell. While there are considerable benefits to be gained by implementing a robust CSR programme, however, a company’s returns will largely be parallel with that which it puts into any such initiatives.

Liberating employees and benefiting
By actively encouraging your employees to engage in local community projects, perhaps even granting paid time off to do so – half a day per month, for instance – you will achieve multiple benefits. For example, employees’ morale, along with respect for the company, increases, given that you are liberating an individual to achieve or make a difference in an area of specific interest to them personally. You will profit through increased productivity, empathy from the employee with your cause as you empathise with theirs, and an increased likelihood of employee retention due to involvement in ongoing projects, not to mention the perception of favourable HR conditions.

Another beneficial by-product of your staff taking active roles in local projects is the skills and experience they could gain through involvement. These will largely be organisation, management, and leadership qualities, but there exists a definite scope for ‘hard skills’ such as basic engineering and tooling, practical ‘expertise like health and safety qualifications, or academic proficiency in areas like finance or law. Many of these skills will be transferable from the external activity to your business, and can be accommodated into employee’s existing roles or, alternatively, allowing them to further their career within the organisation.

Linda Rawson, of the Sheffield-based wire joiner maker Gripple, says the company’s community efforts bring its team closer together and instils a mindset of looking out for one another among its employees. This is a factor that the company holds vital to its commercial success. “Working within the community brings rewards in many disguises, and our work ranges work through our Charities Committee, fund-raising to working with schools, colleges and universities — and we even include community work in our Leadership Development Programme,” says Rawson. Gripple was recognised for its local community work this year when it was awarded best small or medium-sized business in the Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ Manufacturing Excellence Awards.

She says the company’s plethora of community projects: “Is not done to salve our CSR” but is a core value that the business operates by. “We feel that by engendering care for people in the community, we develop this quality in people at work as well. The benefits we derive are enormous; development of leadership, organisational and team working skills are quickly transferred to work, which builds on our philosophy of being creative and innovative.”

A further example of employee upskilling comes from Cadbury. The confectionery maker carries out projects to help the homeless in its home city of Birmingham. Cadbury employees take on roles as ‘job coaches’ for two week work programmes that the company offers to the homeless. One employee involved in the scheme is Lynne Hallworth. “Being involved in the programme helps me to improve the
breadth of management skills, including accountability and managing diversity,” she said. “I also enjoy the fact that I am able to give something back to the community in which I work. The team of buddies here at Cadbury all enjoy the time they spend with the clients and feel positive about the scheme and the company’s involvement.”

Inspiring a new generation
One tangible benefit resulting from local community support relates to that which manufacturing has been missing for the past three decades — interest. While the industry as a whole has long bemoaned a skills shortage, this is not the root problem, or not entirely. Apathy is.

Nonetheless, Wigan-based electronics manufacturer C-TEC provides an example of how working in the local community can help to change the image of manufacturing as a sector, thus helping to source the talent needed for ambitious growth plans. The company is working alongside The Manufacturing Institute (TMI) as a patron of the latter’s ‘Make It in Manufacturing’ campaign — a programme aimed at dispelling the myths which continue to dog modern manufacturing in the minds of Britain’s youth.

C-TEC and the TMI held two separate day long practical events at schools in the local area to teach the children that “gone are the days of dark satanic mills and endless hours spent sticking widgets together on production lines,” says TMI’s Nicola Eagleton-Crowther. The pupils were set projects to design ultra safe buildings for a variety of customers, taking on job roles – from managing director, to operations, finance, and marketing managers – to experience every aspect of running a modern manufacturing enterprise.

“We feel, as manufacturers, that we have an obligation to promote manufacturing in the locality, and that if we want to build on our foundations we need to employ good people,” says C-TEC manufacturing director Steve Collier. “To get those people, they need to know about us – how we work and what we are trying to achieve – and the Make It campaign is perfect for this, given that it is very high profile and receives considerable press attention. It also enables us to speak to the young people there and then.”

Collier found that the enthusiasm and talent expressed by the pupils once they had gotten to grips with the sexier side of manufacturing amazed him. Thus, “it is so important that their creativity is channelled productively and innovatively,” he said. Two pupils we’re identified through the campaign as potential future stars for the company, and C-TEC has arranged to take them on later in the year as part of the school work experience programme.

Like C-TEC, Gripple ingrains itself in local education system. Again, it finds the pupils “amazed at the wealth of job opportunities within the manufacturing sector, and the fact that it is not at all boring and dirty.” But while many companies offer work experience placements, a lot of those will see the programmes as a favour to the local school which they will not directly benefit from. Gripple’s experience is different.

“The work done by schools and colleges also helps us to achieve projects,” says Lawson. “This year work experience students translated key documents, saving us the task and broadening their language skills at the same time. Others helped to run our employee ‘have your say days’ where they learnt valuable communication skills and we gained some impartial help with collating information. At the end of the day we had the help we needed to get the job done.”

“Each year we take part in the Master Cutler’s Challenge, a region-wide initiative in which local companies are given £50 and asked to generate as much as they can for a specified local cause — last year we raised over £14,000 for local hospices. Embracing the challenge and variety of initiatives (which included a scratch-card, a comic and a nearlynaked calendar) earned us the prestigious Judge’s Special Award. This year the focus is Sheffield Children’s Hospital.”

“We are also committed to supporting the Emmaus Project in Sheffield, both in terms of finance and provision of Management Accountancy skills. Our next community project is to give a small children’s gym a complete make over, with the Managers and Team Leaders on our leadership programme organising and managing the project.”

Keep it real
There is a wealth of benefits to be gained by focusing more effort on community projects. Instead of simply donating money to local charities, you can endear your company to the local community; upskill your exiting staff; instill a culture of cooperation and generosity among your employees; get access to the cream of the crop of new talent; build a warm and honest branding; get internationally recognised badges of honour; and much more besides. Resultantly, if you see community projects as simply another box to tick on your CSR checklist, they are unlikely to pay the same dividends as if you put citizenship at the pinnacle of your company culture.